Posts by urbane

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How to Install and Maintain a Fescue Lawn in Memphis

Our fescue seed has arrived!

There are 3 primary choices for turf grass in Memphis, bermuda, zoysia and fescue. Bermuda, usually a hybrid known as Tifway 419 in Memphis, generally requires a minimum of 8 hours of sunlight and Zoysia requires a minimum of 4-6 hours of sunlight, depending upon the cultivar (we recommend Meyers Zoysia almost exclusively). Bermuda and zoysia are warm season turf grasses, meaning that they engage in photosynthesis during the spring and summer months, going dormant in fall.

In contrast, fescue is a cool season grass, meaning that it engages in photosynthesis during the fall and spring, only slowing during the coldest months in Memphis, January and February, and the hottest months in Memphis, July and August. Many people wrongly say that fescue is a shade grass. That statement is misleading. Fescue does well as an under-canopy grass because it wakes up as deciduous trees are losing their leaves and going dormant. This distinction is important because if you plant fescue under evergreen trees, trees that do not lose their leaves in the fall, it likely will not get enough sunlight to survive. Fescue, like zoysia, requires at least 4 hours of sunlight but it can get it during the fall and spring during the period that zoysia is  dormant and not engaging in photosynthesis.

Another important fact about fescue lawns in Memphis is that Memphis’s heat and humidity is very hard on it in July and August. You will lose a percentage of it each year during this time period and you will need to over-seed every fall.

A final distinction between fescue and the warm season grasses, like zoysia and bermuda, is that fescue is usually installed by seed, while zoysia and bermuda are usually installed by sod in Memphis. This is because the best types of zoysia and bermuda are hybrids and/or sterile cultivars, propagated vegetatively, some still in patent, and are only available from sod farms. Though it is possible to get common bermuda and common zoysia seed, the seed produces turf that is unattractive, leggy, and without the self-repairing quality and other improved qualities possessed by the types available at sod farms.

In contrast, though some sod farms offer fescue sod, the resulting plants are no better than that you could grow yourself from seed. You will still have to over-seed it every year. Thus, when smart Memphians choose a fescue lawn, they usually install it by seed rather than by sod.

So, what are the steps to creating a fescue lawn?

 

Choose the Location

It is important to remember that, contrary to what is commonly said, fescue is not a “shade turf grass.” In truth, there is no such thing as a true shade turf grass that would succeed in Memphis. Your fescue will still require at least 4 hours of sunlight after leaf drop. So, if you try to use it in areas that are deeply shaded by evergreen trees, the results will not be great. Fescue can be used in open areas or areas under deciduous trees.

 

Get Rid of Whatever Is There Now

Invariably, the area you are looking to turn into a fescue lawn will have a combination of mostly failed turf grass and weeds. You should kill all of it before you apply the seed. There are a few options for doing this.

The first option, the one I like best, is to spray all the plants with a glyphosate based herbicide. It was originally sold under the brand name, Roundup, but is now off-patent and sold under many different brand names, including one that we carry, a glyphosate concentrate called, “Eraser.” Glyphosate is a good way to get rid of the unwanted plants because it is a systemic that is absorbed through the foliage, killing the entire plant, rather than just the canopy. It is not absorbed through the roots and does not “sterilize the soil” or in any way make the area unplantable. You can, in theory, plant or seed the next day.

It is important to remember that, because you have to over-seed fescue at least once annually to keep it looking full and green, you won’t be able to make use of pre-emergent herbicides to the extent that you would with a turf grass that did not require annual over-seeding. You might be able to do one application of pre-emergent in the spring but that’s it for the year. Any more than that and you risk the failure of your fall over-seeding efforts. So, making sure that all weeds and existing grass in the area are dead before seeding will give you a much better start.

One big drawback to using glyphosate as a weed killer is that, if you are attempting to kill existing warm season turf grass, like bermuda or zoysia, it will only work when the grass is green. Once the grass has gone dormant, i.e. turned tan, glyphosate will not kill it.

But, some people are ideologically opposed to using Roundup. We believe it is a safe chemical when used correctly and it is kept off of your skin and is not ingested. However, reasonable minds may disagree. Accordingly, if you are one of those people, you must use an alternative approach.

First, you can use some herbicide as an alternative to glyphosate that you find more acceptable. The trouble is that the only ones I know about tend to be only a contact herbicide, rather than a systemic, meaning that it takes repeated applications to truly kill the plant. The most common alternative is usually homemade, using cleaning vinegar as its base. If this approach interests you, there are numerous recipes online. Just keep in mind, whereas glyphosate does not “poison the soil,” you’ll want to research the half-life and toxicity of any ingredient you use in a homemade herbicide to determine whether it will make growing other plants in that area more difficult in the future. Since I’ve never used this approach, I’m not qualified to provide further advice.

Second, you can till the ground up completely, an effort that would help with soil preparation any way, and then use a garden rake to rake out all the weeds and undesired plants. The advantage of this approach is that you will aerate the soil in the process, improve seed-soil contact, a critical factor in seed germination, and you can level the surface in the process if it has hills and valleys you want to eliminate. Depending upon the size of the area and level of compaction, even if you use an herbicide, you might still want to till, rake out, and level the area anyway.

The disadvantages to tilling are twofold. First, even a small part of the root system of a perennial weed left behind will very likely grow back into a new plant, meaning you have not really gotten rid of existing weeds. Second, every square foot of land on the surface of the planet is a seed bank. Seeds germinate when they are at or near the surface. If stored below the surface, they can remain dormant for many year, even thousands of years in some places, reawakening when brought to the surface by tilling. So, though your fescue may germinate very well when applied to freshly tilled ground, so will the weed turned up from the seed bank just below the surface.

Now, to be sure, you can kill the broad leaf weeds that emerge with a selective herbicide after a couple of months but just know that it is something you will have to contend with if you till heavily. Besides, if the soil is severely compacted, you may have to till anyway.

Third, you can cover the ground in plastic tarps for a few weeks, a technique called “soil solarization” to heat up the soil and kill not only weeds but even sterilize some of the seeds. My reading suggests this would take 6-8 weeks when hot or 8-12 weeks when cool or in shade. Since I’ve never actually used this technique, I am not in a position to give much advice but there is a tremendous amount of information about it on the internet.

The advantages to this method are that it allows you to avoid chemicals you may not be comfortable using and, if internet logic holds true, it kills turf grass even if it is dormant and sterilizes seed near the surface. The disadvantages are that it takes a lot of plastic, which in and of itself is not environmentally friendly, is costly, , and takes a really long time, a process you should have started weeks ago if you were going to install a fescue lawn this fall. It also might damage the root systems of desirable ornamental trees that would normally share that area with your turf grass. If you are interested in learning more about using this approach to preparing the soil, I found the article at this link to be informative and it is from a reliable academic source.

 

Prepare the Soil

Every gardener should have a good garden fork in their shed like our commercial grade Hisco model.

The best way to prepare large areas of soil for turf grass seed is to till it at a depth of at least 3-4 inches, tilling in compost or soil conditioner (a mix of finely ground pine bark called ‘pine fines’, sand, and leaf compost), at the rate of about 1 cubic yard per 500-1000 square feet. Roots need oxygen and moisture to grow and this is the best way to give it to them, relieving compaction, exposing the soil to oxygen, and improving the moisture infiltration potential of the soil.

But, tilling the soil is not always practical or necessary. Sometimes, if the area is small and not excessively compacted, after killing off weeds and competing grasses, simply adding a half an inch to an inch of soil to the surface is adequate preparation for good seed soil contact and germination. For example, a 10×10 feet area, 100 square feet, would typically only need about 8 cubic feet of some sort of a loose growing medium added to it. One could use “soil conditioner,” some sort of “top soil” or our 4-8 bags of our Fox Farms “Original Planting Mix” as a loose medium for the seed to germinate in.

But, even for this method, I like taking a garden fork, which has stiffer and stronger tines than a pitch fork, dropping it in the ground every six inches or so, and rocking it back and forth to loosen the soil, before putting the additional soil down. The key is that if the soil is not loose enough and there is not enough oxygen in the soil, the seed will germinate but the grass will not perform as well when it heats up in July and August because it was not able to develop deep enough roots.

 

Put Down the Grass Seed

Most tall fescue seed is sold in blends with improved varieties/cultivars that send out rhizomes, that have a more pleasing color, etc. included. The fescue seed blend that I like best, for now, and what we sell the most of, is “Five Star Fescue.” It is a blend of 5 of the best varieties/cultivars of turf type fescue. Apply it at the rate of 6-8 pounds per 1,000 square feet for a new lawn or 3-5 pounds per 1,000 square feet for over-seeding.

As a cautionary note, many brands of fescue seed, including Five Star, also offer a “deep shade mix” alternative that will purportedly perform well in heavily shaded areas, i.e. under evergreen trees. I recommend that you do not use this. The supposed shade tolerance is achieved by adding in some variety of creeping red fescue and the tradeoff for using it is too great, namely a loss of tread tolerance. The weight of a squirrel running across it is likely to kill it!

Fescue seed germinates best when soil temperatures are between 50 degrees and 65 degrees Fahrenheit, corresponding to daytime temperatures of 60 degrees to 75 degrees Fahrenheit. Generally, I like to wait until I see a 10 day forecast with no day higher than 80 degrees Fahrenheit and most days no higher than 75 degrees Fahrenheit. In my experience, in Memphis, that is usually around October 1. Putting down the seed much sooner than that risks subjecting it to heat stress that will cause it to stall and die before it develops a deep enough root system. Doing it after November 1 risks not giving it enough time to develop a deep enough root system before the following Memphis summer, decreasing the percentage of your fescue turf that makes it through July and August.

Generally, I also like to hold back about ten percent of the seed I put down so that I can fill in the inevitable gaps 2-3 weeks after the initial dispersal of seed.

Note that “damping off disease” is often a problem when growing anything from seed. Damping off disease is when a seed is subjected to excess moisture after it has passed the initial germination stage, causing fungal problems. (For more information about damping off disease, try the article at this link.) The two factors for damping off disease seem to only occur in fescue it is put down too early in the fall or if it is seeded in the spring, something I advise against doing anyway.

Recently a customer asked if Five Star Fescue is coated in an anti-fungal chemical to prevent damping off disease. This is a common approach to preventing damping off disease and many product labels, usually those with flashy labels sold in big box stores, indicate their product has such a coating. Five Star Fescue says nothing about such a coating so I asked my supplier representative. He said he felt sure it did but has yet to get back to me with evidence that it does. Regardless, the strains of fescue in Five Star are known to be especially resistant to disease of all kinds and I have never had a problem with damping off disease when using Five Star Fescue. In contrast, I have seen much lower success rates when using big box store brands that clearly state on the front their seed has an anti-fungal coating.

 

Cover the Seed in Pine Needles

One bale of our Pennington Pine Needles will cover 100-150 square feet of fescue seed.

The seed needs to be kept moist and shaded in the first 5-15 days. Earlier in my career, I took the advice of others and used wheat straw to accomplish this objective. But, I found that it contains too much weed seed and holds moisture a little too well, leading to an unsightly rotting mess down the road. So, I switched to pine needles and I have gotten much better results. You will too.

It doesn’t take a lot, maybe 1 or 2 inches. Most of it will get sucked up into the mower when you give the grass its first cut. Just don’t put it down as heavily as you would if you were using it as mulch in a planting bed.

 

Keep It Constantly Moist for 5-15 Days

Ideally, you would have flooded the area you are seeding a few days prior to seeding so it develops a deep reservoir while allowing it to dry out enough so the surface is not muddy when you are putting down the seed. Then, after installing it, keep it constantly moist until the grass seed has come up at least an inch and appears mostly germinated, gradually tapering the water over the next few weeks. Subjecting it to torrential downpours of water will cause pooling of the seed so that the turf does not grow evenly. Though it is not always practical to do so, when I can, I like to lightly mist it 3-5 times per day during the first few days. Otherwise, a morning and evening irrigation can be sufficient for the first 5 days, dropping to once daily after that, then tapering off even more after it begins to develop. Because new turf has a very shallow root system, in the first 3 weeks, at least, it is entirely dependent on the moisture level in the top ½ to 1 inch of soil.

 

Fertilize

Many people recommend fertilizing at the same time as or before you put down the grass seed. I don’t and I eschew soil testing too unless there has been some kind of historic problem with not being able to grow things in your soil. I can get a good read on soil by feel and texture.

However, others swear by soil testing and say it should always be done before planting anything. To get your soil tested professionally, in Memphis, call or email the University of Tennessee extension office for Shelby County or reach out to Waypoint Analytical in Bartlett, Tennessee for private testing. I tend to prefer the latter but many people swear by the former. I like the format of the test results that I get from Waypoint Analytical and have a friend who works there.

 

When the grass gets to be about 2 inches, I like to fertilize with a ½ pound per 100 square feet 12-6-6 time release fertilizer called “Grower’s Special,” made by Hi-Yield. You could probably fertilize before then but I tend to think the grass won’t benefit from fertilization before then. The following late February or early March I will increase that to 1 ½ pounds per 100 square feet for the spring fertilization and do the same every year around that time and again in early October.

There are more aggressive fertilizing regimen, if one is striving for perfection, that will produce marginally better results, but require much more effort. This simpler method has always served me well.

 

Cut the Grass

Cool season turf installed by author after first cut in midtown Memphis, Tennessee

I like to wait until the grass gets to about 5 inches and then cut it back to 3 or 4 inches. Many say cut it back to 2 or 2.5 but I prefer keeping it longer. Fescue doesn’t send out lateral runners as aggressively as warm season turf grasses and seems to benefit from

having longer blades. Cut it high and cut it frequently.

 

Maintenance

Fescue turf thins and experience some dieback in Memphis every year in late Summer. Therefore, unlike in areas farther north, we have to over-seed our fescue lawns every fall, usually at the rate of 3-5 pounds of fescue per 1,000 square feet. Many say that you should also over-seed in early spring, when soil temperatures are briefly in the correct temperature range again for seed germination. But, my reading and experience suggests that spring seeding of fescue is wasteful in that the grass that emerges from spring seed does not have enough time to develop a deep enough root system to withstand our heat and humidity in July and August. Of course, if you do over-seed in early spring, you’ll likely enjoy a thicker lawn in late spring, at least.

As previously mentioned, I like to apply 1.5 pounds of 12-6-6 time release fertilizer each spring and fall.

Also as previously described, getting a weed free lawn is a little more challenging with a fescue lawn in our part of the country. The primary weapon for weed elimination in turf grass is granular pre-emergent but you really can’t use that weapon with fescue turf in Memphis. You might be able to use it in early spring but I tend not to do so because I worry that, even though the labels say it only lasts for 3 months or less, it might interfere with seed germination when I over-seed in the fall. I am also generally more tolerant of weeds in turf than others too.

Daffodils naturalized in a cool season turf lawn of Five Star Fescue installed by the author in a yard near Overton Park in midtown Memphis, Tennessee

In fact, I like to add drifts of Durana White Clover seed in the fall to my fescue turfs I install. Durana White Clover is a patented variety of white clover owned by Pennington. Like all leguminous plants (those in the pea family), it has the unique ability to pull nitrogen from the ambient air and fix it in the soil through a symbiotic relationship with beneficial bacteria in the soil. I like the look of occasional drifts of white flowering plants and the Durana White Clover is a dwarf that never gets too tall.

Of course, any selective post-emergent herbicide is going to kill it but I find I only have to use that stuff every 2-3 years when the weeds get really bad and I want a fresh start. Then, I just buy another quarter pound of Durana White Clover and toss it out, like I’m feeding chickens, as Greg Touliatos is fond of saying, the randomness of the application method contributing to the beauty of how it interacts aesthetically with the fescue turf.

The author, John Jennings, has been manager of Urban Earth Garden Center since June 1, 2016. Before that he was a self-employed landscaper for 8 years, having worked as both a real estate lawyer and a drug counselor in previous lives. John is a graduate of the McCallie School, the University of Richmond, and the University of Memphis Law School. 

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Late Summer Perennials for the Midsouth

Many people quit visiting nurseries in Memphis in late July and August. Because of this, there are a group of beautiful plants that are at their best when Memphis is at its worst, late summer. These are the plants that will be coming alive when your roses have bloomed out, your yarrow is melting, and your creeping phlox is more creepy than fluorescent. Though there are many more, I have chosen 8 late summer bloomers to review, plants selected by our staff at Urban Earth.

Eutrochium dubium ‘Baby Joe’

Eutrochium dubium ‘Baby Joe’ (Photo by Martha Garriott)

Eutrochium dubium is commonly referred to as “Joe Pye Weed,” named after an American Indian herbalist from the New England area. Though found in other parts of the world, it is native to the coastal areas of eastern and southern North America, typically found along rivers and in swamps. To do well, it needs well-fertilized, constantly moist soil, but, if well sited, it comes alive in late summer with large blooms varying in shades from pink to purple. It does best in full sun but can handle part shade. Consider picking a low spot in your perennial garden that gets at least 6 hours of sunlight and planting either 1 as a specimen or a drift of several of these for a real show during the hottest part of the summer.

Since “perennial garden” is a near synonym for “butterfly garden,” it is hard to talk about perennials without talking about the butterflies they are known for hosting. Accordingly, this particular plant is known for attracting American Lady, Little Glassywing, and Zabulon Skipper.

The United States patent office issued a patent for the cultivar, “Baby Joe,” in 2009. Thus, this particular cultivar of Joe Pye Weed is still relatively new to the plant market. Discovered in a controlled growing environment in a greenhouse in the Netherlands, this cultivar is distinguished from the species for its upright and compact habit, moderately vigorous growth habit, a longer flowering period, large grayed purple-colored flowers, and strong and upright flower stalks. Despite billing itself as a dwarf plant, it can still get 60 inches tall, though more commonly it is seen around 3-4 feet. This is a good solid cultivar of a native (termed ‘nativar’) that would make a fine addition to any Midsouth perennial or butterfly garden.

Chelone lyonii ‘Hot Lips’

How could you pass on the opportunity to have a plant in your garden commonly known as ‘Hot Lips Turtlehead’?! The name alone justifies the purchase!

An Appalachian native plant, the specific epithet of the botanical name for Turtlehead, lyonii, is in honor of the American botanist, John Lyons (1765-1814), an early explorer of southern Appalachia. The plant is found in low spots in wet woodlands and along streams in its native habitat. Thus, like Joe Pye Weed, it needs constantly moist soil to do well. And, like most late summer perennials, it does best in full sun but can survive in part shade. Its flowers are pink and are often described as snapdragon like.

This nativar, ‘Hot Lips’ is distinguished for having more richly colored flowers and leaves than the species and red stems.

Rudbeckia fulgida var. sullivantii ‘Goldsturm’

Rudbeckia fulgida var. sullivantii ‘Goldsturm’

Black-eyed Susans (the common name for Rudbeckia) are prolific bloomers.  They have been a staple in Mid-south landscapes for at least as long as I have been alive. A native plant, it probably should be the Tennessee state flower. Sometimes called a coneflower, this common name is used less because it makes the plant too easily confused with Echinacea, another native, also commonly called coneflower. Though it is versatile in the soils it can tolerate, it seems to do best in dry to medium moisture soils. Thus, I have it in a high spot in my perennial garden in full sun. Though I do water weekly in July and August, I have noticed that it will get powdery mildew and/or septoria leaf spot if over-watered. (A light annual application of soil sulfur in early spring and pine needles as mulch nearly eliminates any risk of these problems.)

The nativar, ‘Goldsturm’, was introduced in 1937 as a cultivar of the variety of Rudbeckia fulgida, sullivantii. Recognized as the 1999 Perennial Plant of the Year, the plant was an overnight sensation (tongue-in-cheek), completely displacing the variety, sullivantii, in the market place. Personally, I find it superior to other Rudbeckia because it is more compact, growing to only 2 feet tall, making it less prone to flopping over in late summer. It also seems to me to bloom longer and more prolifically than others.  It certainly has a longer lifespan in the Midsouth than the biennial, Rudbeckia hirta. Though it can be planted as a specimen, this is a plant that looks great planted in drifts of at least 3 or even planted en masse.

Veronica x ‘Sunny Border Blue’

Blooms on Sunny Border Blue Speedwell just beginning to pop in late July 2018 in Memphis at Urban Earth (Photo by Martha Garriott)

Imagine the year to be AD31 and there is a hot and sweaty man being abused and carrying a cross, on his way to be crucified. A woman, depending upon who is telling the story, taking pity upon him, lends the man a cloth to wipe his face. He does so and returns it and when he returns it there is a perfect image of his face upon the cloth. The person lending him the cloth has been variously identified by different names, Seraphia (according to Ann Catherine Emmerich and Mel Gibson), Nike a.k.a. the Greek goddess of victory (according to the Italian writer and mystic, Maria Valtorta in The Poem of the Man God), and Veronica.

Whether you view this story as true, entirely fictional, or generously apocryphal, the relevance of the story is that this woman not only gets referred to in a song by Tori Amos and has a bullfighting technique named after her, but she has also been gifted by Carl Linnaeus, the father of modern plant taxonomy, with the privilege of being the eponym for a genus of about 250 plants that includes Sunny Border Blue Spike Speedwell, the name bestowed upon the genus officially around the year 1572.

How does this help you understand the needs of Sunny Border Blue Spike Speedwell? It doesn’t at all but planting and caring for plants is rarely done in isolation. It is the stories about the plants that we get to tell our guests as we give them tours that makes gardening a rich activity.

So, Sunny Border Blue starts blooming in mid to late July in our nursery and blooms well into the fall. It needs to be sited in full sun or at least part sun with soil that is neither as dry as a color guard yucca could handle nor as wet as Joe Pye Weed prefers, medium soil. About 2 feet tall, it shoots up gorgeous blue spikes and pairs nicely with yellow blooming plants like Rudbeckia or Solidago sphacelata ‘Golden Fleece’. It also looks nice next to Becky Shasta Daisies, a plant with white blooms and yellow centers, comparable in height to Sunny Border Blue. Though introduced in 1946, it was not as fully appreciated as it should be until named the perennial of the year in 1993.

Salvia greggii ‘Radio Red’

Josiah Gregg likely had a genius level IQ, working at various times in his life as a school teacher, a bookkeeper, a merchant, a lawyer, a photographer, and a medical doctor, but he is primarily known for his explorations and his best seller, Commerce of the Prairies, a two volume, 28 chapter treatise, based upon his travels in the southwest United States and Mexico. Born a little over 300 miles northeast of

Salvia greggii ‘Radio Red’

Memphis in Overton County, Tennessee in 1806, he died of starvation, falling off of his horse after getting lost trying to find his way back to San Francisco in the wilderness. But, in the mid 1840s, a few years before his death, he collected many plants, among them a plant commonly and variously known as Autumn Sage, Texas Sage, or Red Chihuahuan Sage, but more properly called Salvia greggi, the specific epithet in honor of Josiah Gregg.

The cultivar/nativar, ‘Radio Red’, is likely the most recent plant considered in this article, a patent for it having been issued in only 2016. It was the product of a controlled breeding program during the summer of 2008 by Scott Treyes in Aroyo Grande, California. Treyes was looking for plants with a compact growth habit and big blooms. ‘Radio Red’ appears substantially smaller, at only 18 inches tall, than its larger cousin, ‘Furman’s Red’. Supposedly, the blooms of ‘Radio Red’ are a deeper true red than any other Salvia gregii, but they appear to be only slightly darker, if at all darker than ‘Furman’s Red’ to this author. However, it is likely to bloom longer and is a more appropriate choice for smaller gardens or for the visual foregrounds, en masse, where a red bloom is needed in late summer. Once established, it likes fairly dry soil. So, be careful of over-watering.

All Salvia greggii are top hummingbird attractors in dryer climates. If paired with Blue Boa Agastache, your Memphis garden is sure to be filled with Ruby Throated Hummingbirds in most years.

Vernonia lettermannii  ‘Iron Butterfly’

The community of Allenton, Missouri, near St. Louis, is in a sad state. St. Louis County designated it as a blighted area, because of its chronic problems. Eureka, the larger nearby town, annexed it in the mid 1980’s, to solve Allenton’s water problems. Because of Allenton’s close proximity to the interstate and Six Flags (the amusement park), real estate developers targeted it at the beginning of the 21st century as a place for a shopping mall and 1700 homes. Getting the local government to exercise its power of eminent domain, they razed the entire town, but went broke when the real estate recession hit, before they could begin the development. Today, the community is a ghost town of concrete foundations.

Vernonia lettermannii ‘Iron Butterfly’ just starting to bloom.

But, in the world of botany, likely unknown to most nearby residents, it has much greater significance. From 1864 to 1871, it was the home of the great German-American botanist, August Fendler, who had moved there after leaving Memphis. It was Fendler that introduced George Washington Letterman to the world of plants when Letterman took a job as a school teacher in Allenton, meeting with Letterman to tutor him in plant identification 2-3 times per week in the years 1870 and 1871. Fendler, seemingly a roamer by nature, abandoned Allenton, as have so many others, but not before leaving Letterman with a deep love of plants, setting the stage for him to become one of the greatest American botanists of the 19th century.

Letterman, eschewing multiple offers by Harvard to join its faculty, stayed in the area his entire life, living out of a cabin there, but walking long distances, searching for plants and finding quite a few used in the nursery trade today, among them Vernonia lettermanii, named after him. Letterman, an unrepentant recluse, died in his little cabin in Allenton, attended only by a single neighbor, somewhat obscure but not insignificant, with plant species in 4 different genera named for him.

Vernonia lettermanii, sometimes commonly referred to as Slimleaf Ironweed, is found growing in the cracks within and between rocks in Arkansas and Oklahoma, its native habitat. It prefers hot and dry conditions, blooming purple in late summer.  ‘Iron Butterfly’ is a selection from Alan Armitage’s trials at the University of Georgia.  A more compact and more prolific bloomer than its species, it gets about 3 feet tall and 2 feet wide, at most. Site it in a high spot, relative to the rest of your garden, perhaps near plants like Colorguard Yucca, Russian Sage, Goldenrod, and Autumn Joy Sedum.

Solidago sphacelata ‘Golden Fleece’

Solidago sphacelata ‘Golden Fleece’ just beginning to bloom in Memphis July 2018 (Photo by Martha Garriott)

The goldenrod plant, for years wrongly accused as being the source of hay fever, has not been used much in ornamental horticulture. This particular selection, commonly called Golden Fleece Autumn Goldenrod, but more properly called by the botanical name, Solidago sphacelata ‘Golden Fleece’, was discovered as a spontaneous seedling in a garden in Eden, North Carolina in 1985, more compact and better blooming than the species. It was tested and introduced to the market by the Mount Cuba Center, in Maryland. Like William Faulkner, American switchgrass, and Jazz, it was better appreciated in Europe before being properly honored in its native homeland, the United States, winning the International Syaden-Union’s Award for an outstanding new plant in Swizterland in 1994.

This plant prefers a sunny and dry spot. So, site it in a higher spot in the garden, near plants like Colorguard Yucca, Ironweed, and Autumn Joy Sedum. Expect a plethora of butterflies and jealous gardeners to visit!

Perovskia atriplicifolia ‘Blue Jean Baby’

For lovers of blue blooming perennials, Russian sage has always been attractive. But, urban gardeners have often eschewed it, knowing it can easily get 5 feet tall and wide and needing more restrained

Perovskia atriplicifolia ‘Blue Jean Baby’ just beginning to bloom in Memphis, July 2018

plants because of their smaller gardens. But, ‘Blue Jean Baby’ solves this problem by being a dwarf cultivar of the species, topping out at about 34 inches. Additionally, it starts blooming earlier in the season than other Russian sages.

Conclusion

Perennials gardens are like a symphony. There should be a different section for the beginning, middle, and end of the show. Memphis gardeners are very strong at designing our gardens for a good show in spring and early summer but we are often weaker in planting for late summer blooms. Work these plants into your garden to make the end of the show better.

The author, John Jennings, has been manager of Urban Earth Garden Center since June 1, 2016. Before that he was a self-employed landscaper for 8 years, having worked as both a real estate lawyer and a drug counselor in previous lives. John is a graduate of the McCallie School, the University of Richmond, and the University of Memphis Law School. All photographs for this article are by Martha Garriott. Martha is a horticulturalist at Urban Earth, a retired social worker, and a Tennessee Master Gardener.

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10 TIPS FOR GREAT CONTAINER ARRANGEMENTS

Spring arrangement with sago palm as thriller, variegated swedish ivy as the filler, and a combination of purple and white scaveola and
Setcreasea pallida ‘Purple Heart’ as spillers.

Pick a high quality container based upon size of arrangement wanted, location of arrangement, and whether it is likely to be moved.

 

Campania ceramic pots, fired longer and at higher temperatures than those of their competitors are the best and most creatively designed in the industry.

You can’t build a beautiful container arrangement with an ugly pot. Worse yet would be building a beautiful container arrangement with a pot that breaks the first time someone bumps it or there’s a frost. Then, there are those cheap poly-resin or plastic pots that fade at the first hint of sunlight. In short, you get what you pay for.

 

At Urban Earth, we carry high quality planters made by Campania and Fiore. Whereas some concrete planters decay and crumble in just a couple of years, the best concrete is more durable, properly cured and sealed. Similarly, Campania’s ceramic pots are fired longer and at higher temperatures to create a clay pot that is much more frost resistant than less expensive glazed pottery.

 

Finally, bigger is generally better. Most people get pots that are too small for the context. The bigger the container the less vulnerable the arrangement will be to temperature fluctuations and drought.

 

No matter what kind of container you get, make sure there is at least one drain hole in the bottom, unless you’re creating a water garden or a bog garden.

 

Choose a good potting mix.

Ocean Forest Potting Mix, made by Fox Farms, is widely considered the best in the industry for most applications.

 

Container gardens never drain as well as in-ground gardens. Therefore, potting mix has to be much lighter and drain better than a garden mix. Otherwise, your plants will quickly succumb to root rot.

 

At Urban Earth, we carry top shelf organic potting mixes by Fox Farms. Cheaper potting mixes use synthetic fertilizers and cheaper fillers, making for plants with weaker stems and more fungal problems.

 

Use Soil Moist for hanging basket arrangements or those subject to potentially inadequate watering.

Hanging baskets lose moisture much faster than other types of containers.

Hanging baskets loose moisture REALLY fast! Soil Moist is a water absorbing polymer that, when used correctly, holds in moisture better without making the mix soggy. It is similarly helpful in arrangements likely to receive inadequate attention, places like businesses or weekend homes.

 

Use a Drain-It disk.

 

Nearly every plant will need really good drainage to avoid root rot. Having a drainage hole or even multiple holes in the bottom of the pot will not guarantee good drainage. Gravity and time will conspire together to clog those holes. Therefore, good gardeners, in the old days, put gravel, broken terra cotta, or Styrofoam peanuts in the bottom of the pots. But, even then, that only delayed the inevitable compaction. So, the next step was to wrap the material in landscape cloth to keep the potting mix from descending into the reservoir. But then, some genius invented the Drain-It Disk and the world was a better place.

Soil Moist helps arrangements retain moisture longer.

 

Choose the right mix of plants.

 

First, if the arrangement is going to be indoors, year round, it needs to be able to handle the stress of an indoor environment. We think of climate control, with year-round constant temperatures as being the ideal, but not all plants can handle it. Some plants need a period of vernalization or dormancy, which generally only occurs when temperatures drop below 50 degrees for a sustained period of time, each year. Moreover, the air in homes is much dryer than the air outside, in many parts of the country, not able to provide the humidity needed by some plants. Finally, in even the brightest spots in your home, there is usually less light than you could find anywhere outside. So, make sure the plants you use are plants with a solid track record of performing well indoors, plants like strawberry begonia, zz plant, English ivy, and philodendron, just to name a few.

A DrainIt! disk is essential for nearly every type of arrangement.

Second, if the arrangement is outside, consider the amount of sunlight the plants will be getting. As is true with all garden designing, you need to know the terms for describing light conditions, “full sun,” “part sun,” “part shade,” “shade,” “morning sun,” and “afternoon sun.” Full sun means at least six hours of direct sunlight daily, part sun means 3-6 hours of direct sun daily, part shade also means 3-6 hours of direct sun daily but that the plants will be sheltered from western exposure (afternoon sun), preferring eastern exposure (morning sun), and full shade is less than 3 hours of direct sunlight daily. Only choose plants that are right for your light conditions.

 

Third, choose a combination of plants rather than just one or two plants and choose a nice combination of thrillers, fillers, and spillers.

 

The thriller is the tallest plant, the focal point of the arrangement. It can be a small tree like a coral bark maple, a flowering plant like Cordyline fruticose, or, if the arrangement is small, something like shrimp plant or Angelonia. Where you place the thriller in the arrangement, whether centered or off-center, is determined by the perspective of the arrangement’s intended audience. If the arrangement will be viewed from all sides, it is often in the center. Otherwise, it is off-center and in the back of the arrangement.

 

The filler is usually shorter and wider than the thriller but more upright than the filler. Its color and texture should simultaneously complement and contrast with the thriller. The filler should never try to compete with the thriller, its primary purpose being to provide visual support for the thriller. A few of my favorite fillers include hens and chicks, sweet flag, Firewitch dianthus, route 66 coreopsis, chocolate chip ajuga, or even mondo grass. But, it should be shorter than the thriller and taller than the spiller.

In this simple indoor arrangement, split leaf philodendron acts as the thriller, strawberry begonia is the filler, and variegated English ivy is the thriller. In time, it will fill in for a much more lush look. The container is a “Bradford Planter Rust Lite” by Campania, with a rolling ornamental metal plant caddy by MayRich to raise it off the ground and promote good drainage, and a Bond plastic saucer to catch excess water. 

Finally, the spiller is like the scarf or the tie that completes the outfit. Great spillers include variegated English ivy, burgundy glow ajuga, creeping phlox, portulaca, wave petunias, and lemon ball sedum.

 

Consider the time-frame.

 

In magazines, arrangements are filled with plants, a solid mass. But, usually, in real life, arrangements start off with some blank space between plants, to allow the plants room to grow to their full size. If you place too many plants in a pot, you’ll be pulling some out in a few weeks as they grow to maturity and the arrangement becomes too crowded. So, it’s not good to overplant.

 

On the other hand, if the arrangement is for a special event, and you are determined to have immediate gratification with a full arrangement NOW, fill it up! Just know that, if you do, you’ll need to revisit the arrangement every few weeks, eventually repurposing or throwing away some of the plants.

 

A former employee, Dawn Johnson, made the most of a broken pot with this creative arrangement!

Incorporate non-plant elements (sometimes).

 

Consider creative touches like lattice-work for a climbing thriller (think clematis or Carolina jessamine), miniature garden figures or small statues, and stones or gravel. But don’t go overboard and if you have a lot of container arrangements, don’t use non-plant elements in every one.

Miniature garden figures can make great creative additions to arrangements.

 

Promote good drainage by raising the pot off of the ground.

 

Even if you have chosen a pot with a drainage hole and you have sprung for a drain-it disk, if there is no space between the bottom of the pot and the ground beneath it, it won’t drain. Create space between the bottom of the pot and the ground with pot feet, pot dollies, plant stands, or even coins. You can, literally, accomplish this part of the arrangement for a few pennies!

 

Use plastic saucers or deck savers to catch excess water.

 

The thing about arrangements with good drainage is that they, well, drain. And, if the surface beneath your container isn’t something you want to get wet, you need to put something down there to catch the water, or, in the case of a deck, at least keep it from sitting and pooling in one place and rotting the wood.

 

Fertilize and water the arrangement appropriately.

 

Different plants need different levels of moisture. Succulents, like hens and chicks, and stonecrop rarely need watering. In contrast, big leaf hydrangeas and dwarf giant papyrus need water very often. But, most plants are somewhere in between and will thrive if you apply the knuckle test regularly. By knuckle test, I mean that, after the first watering, stick your finger in the soil every day or two and water only when you don’t feel moisture by somewhere between the first and second knuckle, depending on where the plants’ water needs are on the continuum. Remember, most plants need the top inch or two of the soil to dry out between waterings.

 

Similarly, plants won’t reach their full potential if you don’t feed them. Less expensive potting mixes use synthetic time release fertilizer, advertising that no fertilization is necessary for three to six months. (The outright cheap potting mixes contain no nutrients at all.) But, better potting soils use purely organic ingredients, with nutrients that are gentler and more accessible to the plants. Even the Fox Farms mix with the longest nutrient charge only provides nutrients sufficient for the first 4-5 weeks.

Urban Earth Garden Center is proud to carry Fox Farm Products, including their Happy Frog line of organic fertilizers.

So, you need to fertilize, and, when you do, use a high quality organic fertilizer, a granular like Happy Frog All Purpose or a Liquid like Fox Farms Big Bloom. For all of my own personal container arrangements, I sprinkle a teaspoon full of Happy Frog All Purpose organic fertilizer once weekly.

 

Remember, you can always come to Urban Earth for help. We’ll help you design your arrangements at no charge and we’ll even plant them for you if you bring your containers or buy containers from us and have the means to transport planted arrangements!

John Jennings, Author and Manager

The author, John Jennings, has been manager of Urban Earth Garden Center since June 1, 2016. Before that he was a self-employed landscaper for 8 years, having worked as both a real estate lawyer and a drug counselor in previous lives. He grew up in the South Carolina low country, learning to garden in the fertile soil of Copes Island, a small barrier island near Beaufort, in Jasper County. John is a graduate of the McCallie School, the University of Richmond, and the University of Memphis Law School. If you read this blog entry, please email the author at john@urbanearthmemphis.com and let him know what you think. 

 

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Planting Guide for Woody Plants (Trees and Shrubs)

If you’ve never planted a tree or shrub, you should not be intimidated, but you should know that it is more than just digging a hole and sticking the plant in it. Technique matters.

We have given away this free one page planting guide at Urban Earth for years.

Field grown Emerald Green Arborvitae with the root ball wrapped in wire and burlap (bnb).

Woody plants, trees, and shrubs come in either a container grown form or a root ball wrapped in burlap. Container grown plants tend to cost more than ball in burlap (bnb) but are usually worth the extra money. This is because container grown plants come with a fully intact root system. In contrast, bnb plants are grown in a field and then cut out of the ground by the grower when it is time to ship them to a retailer. As such, in comparison to container grown plants, the ability of their root system to take up nutrients and water is impaired for at least the first few months after planting.

Since the majority of the plants Urban Earth sells are container grown plants, which are better for most consumers, this guide

Container grown plants, like these beautiful Awabuki Chindo Viburnums, cost a bit more than bnb plants but are well worth the extra money.

assumes the reader is planting a container grown plant.

 

Right Plant, Right Spot

The first step is to pick a good spot. The number one reason plants fail is because plant and location are not properly matched. Plants differ in the number of hours of sunlight they need, the frequency with which they need watering, whether they tolerate wet feet, and their preferred types of soil. For best results, work with our sales staff to make sure the plant you are choosing is appropriate for the spot in which you intend to install it. For them to help you, you will need to know whether the spot is on the North, South, East, or West side of your home, whether the spot is sheltered from Western winds, whether the spot is low with frequent standing water or higher than the rest of the yard, etc.

In this midtown landscape makeover, planted in winter, notice how garden designer, Jesse Howley, picked a spot for this coral bark maple and this holly where they get full morning sun but also get shelter from western winds, planting both slightly high for good drainage, and mulching with pine needles. Right plant, right spot.

Digging the Hole

My drawing skills are terrible! But, this might help illustrate my explanation.

The next step is digging the hole. The hole should only be dug when the soil is friable. To test for friability, pick up a handful of the

Our Hisco long handled garden spade is ideal for taller gardeners or those needing more leverage.

soil and throw it against a hard surface. If it breaks apart into smaller pieces, it is friable. If it splats, looking like a pancake, it is not friable and should be allowed to dry out some before digging. If you dig a hole when the soil is not friable, the sides will become sealed by the shovel as you slide it into the ground, possibly preventing drainage and slowing root growth, becoming like a terracotta pot.

The shape of the hole should be a shallow bowl with a diameter at least 3 times the size of that of the root ball. This will allow water to penetrate the surface better and give new surface roots an easy space into which to spread. For example, if the plant came in a trade 3 gallon container, the most common size in the nursery trade, it likely has a root ball with a diameter at the top of 10 to 11 inches. So, the top of your bowl-shaped hole should be 30-33 inches across, with sloping sides tapering down to 10-11 inches at the bottom.

A high quality commercial grade shovel, like our d-handled Hisco garden spade, is an essential tool for every home owner and gardener.

The hole should be no deeper than minimally necessary to accommodate 80% to 85% of the height of the root ball. For example, if the plant comes in a trade 3 gallon pot, it likely has a root ball that is about 10 inches high. Accordingly, the hole should be about 8 to 8.5 inches deep. Upon completion, the plant should sit a little high, to promote drainage away from the trunk rather than water pooled around the trunk.

Avoid the temptation of digging the hole deeper than necessary and filling back in with what you consider better soil, “for the tap root.” Past the seedling stage, woody plants rarely send roots down, instead sending them out to the sides. Hence, horticulturalists often speak of “the tap root myth.” And, if you dig deeper and then back-fill to bring the root ball back up, there will be settling, meaning the crown of the root ball, where the roots connect to the trunk, may end up below grade, rather than above grade, with the passage of time.

This is in contrast to what many garden guides will tell you, stating that the hole should be deeper than the root ball. For example, the 7th edition of the Mid-South Garden Guide (MSGG), which I consider to be a brilliantly written guide, definitive in most matters, states, on page 36, “Dig a hole a little deeper than the root ball and at least twice as wide.” Though gardening is not known for fast changing, cutting-edge thinking, the gardening community does change its mind about things. Thus, most competent landscape installers I know have evolved in their thinking on this and dig the hole only as deep as necessary, but a bit wider than this quote from the MSGG might imply.

The Mid-South Garden Guide, a classic text that are proud to carry, currently in its 7th edition, is essential for every Memphis gardener.

Putting the Plant in the Hole

After the hole is dug, remove the plant from the pot by grasping the base of the trunk, right at or slightly above the crown, while holding the pot in place or sliding it out. If it doesn’t come out easily, squeeze the sides or even gently pound the sides a bit to loosen it up. If it still won’t slide out easily, use a box cutter to cut the bottom off of the pot and then slice up the side to separate it from plant from pot entirely.

NOTE: Roses are different than most other woody plants. They have a much more fragile root ball and should always be sliced out of the pot with a box cutter, first slicing off the bottom and then placing the plant in the hole before slicing off the slides of the container. The backfill content for roses should also be different and is beyond the scope of this guide.

After removing the plant from the pot, gently loosen its root ball. If it is significantly root bound, with girdling roots (thick roots circling all the way around the root ball) you may want to do some light pruning or cutting of the roots with shears or a pruning saw to open up the root ball a bit. But, don’t go over board with this! Generally, the horticultural community does less severe root ball loosening than it used to do.

Then, place the plant in the hole, with about 15% to 20% of the root ball above the existing grade so that water will drain away from rather than towards the trunk, post planting. Keep in mind that, though roots are designed to absorb water, the cambium layer forming the outside of trunks is not designed to absorb water. Water pooling and sitting against a trunk will eventually cause damage to the outer cambium layer and impair the plant’s ability to take up nutrients.

Putting Soil in the Hole

A good recipe for soil back-fill for woody plants is half of the original soil, half Fox Farms Original Planting Mix, and a 1/4 cup of soil sulfur, well mixed.

There is much written about the ideal soil amendments for planting. In fact, there is an entire chapter on the subject in the 7th edition of the MSGG! And, many suggest that you should always have your soil tested in a laboratory to see what it needs before planting. But, I am currently advising all of our customers to back fill the hole around the plant with a mixture composed of 50% Fox Farms Original Planting Mix, 50% of the original soil, and a quarter cup of soil sulfur. Unless you are doing a wholesale re-landscaping of a significantly large portion of the yard, spending hundreds or even thousands of dollars on plants, soil testing adds a layer of difficulty to the task of installing a plant or tree that will only occasionally be rewarded with better results. Similarly, though custom mixing soil from raw ingredients may produce better results for experienced gardeners, most of the time the Fox Farms Original Planting Mix is superior to anything you could mix up yourself.

As you place your soil mix back in the hole, gently press it down around the root ball, adding more as necessary, being careful to keep it from piling against the trunk. When finished, the soil should slope gently away from the root crown, where the roots meet the trunk. Most trees, and many shrubs, will have a slight flaring of the trunk right above the root crown. That part should remain visible.

It would be hard to match a mix of this quality with a home brew soil mix. Though the harvesting of bat guano can be damaging to the habitat of bat populations, our Fox Farm representative has assured us that they use only fossilized bat guano from caves not currently occupied by bats.

In fact, when arborists are called to inspect struggling trees in the ground for less than 2 years, that is often the first thing they notice, that the trunk flare is missing, because the tree was planted too low, causing a gradual breakdown of the outer cambium layer, where the tree’s vascular tissue exists, home of the pathways through which nutrients travel up the trunk from the roots.

Finally, drench the tree with water, perhaps more than you might regularly water with, to get any air pockets out and to rehydrate the roots from any drying that has occurred during the trip from the nursery to the hole. Add more soil if necessary because of settling after watering.

Mulch and Maintenance

After planting, mulch with the 3 to 4 inches of fresh pine needles or 1 to 2 inches of wood chips or bark mulch. For more information about mulching, please read my blog article, “Mulch Ado About Nothing,” in which I explain why pine needles are superior to other mulches. The purpose of mulch is to help reduce weeds, slow the evaporation of moisture from the soil, and give the ground around the plants a uniform appearance.

Going forward, most plants benefit from an application of 12-6-6 granular time-release fertilizer, every spring and fall, or a monthly application of one of our Happy Frog organic fertilizers. I also advise an annual application of soil sulfur, which I usually do in the fall. Some people advise mixing fertilizer into the back fill when planting, initially. Even I will sometimes do that, but newly installed plants are more sensitive to over-fertilization and there is usually adequate nutrition in the soil they came in, combined with the Fox Farm planting mix I described above, and existing soil. If you use the Fox Farm Planting Mix, you will not need to mix in any additional fertilizer into the soil.

Remember, though most soil has a tendency to revert to a neutral ph over time, most woody plants absorb nutrients and water better when the soil is at least slightly acidic. Soil sulfur is a natural and gentle soil acidifier. While soil can be made too acidic for many plants, it is harder to make a mistake when using purely organic ingredients, which are slower acting than purely synthetic products. Soil sulfur is a natural fungicide, and often cures many nutrient deficiencies in plants, since nutrient deficiencies occur most often, not because the nutrients aren’t in the soil, but because the plant can’t pull those nutrients from the soil if the ph is too high (alkaline). Since sulfur is a negatively charged particle, an anion, it also does not bind with negatively charged soil particles, making it more vulnerable to leaching, needing more frequent replenishing.

 

A four pound bag of soil sulfur costs well under $15.00 ($11.99 at the time of this writing) and is essential for every gardener to have in her shed.

John Jennings, Author and Manager

The author, John Jennings, has been manager of Urban Earth Garden Center since June 1, 2016.  Before that he was a self-employed landscaper for 8 years, having worked as both a real estate lawyer and a drug counselor in previous lives. He grew up in the South Carolina low country, learning to garden in the fertile soil of Copes Island, a small barrier island near Beaufort, in Jasper County. John is a graduate of the McCallie School, the University of Richmond, and the University of Memphis Law School. If you read this blog entry, please email the author at john@urbanearthmemphis.com and let him know what you think. 

 

 

 

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New Years Resolutions for Your Landscape

“I have no plants in my house.  They won’t live for me.  Some of them don’t even wait to die, they commit suicide.” 
–  Jerry Seinfeld

 

I hear people make self-deprecating statements about their gardening abilities all the time. Yet, the reality is that no one is born a gardener. Like all things, people learn to be better gardeners by practicing, and practicing begins with setting goals. This week, the mid-south is bitterly cold, a terrible time to go outside and do yard work, but a great time to write down some of your goals for your landscape in 2018.

But, don’t just write down your goals. Be sure to share them with others! Sharing goals is a way of sharing optimism and a belief in each other.

Accordingly, I encourage homeowners to set goals for improvement in their landscapes and their gardening abilities each year. Then, ask the staff at Urban Earth for help in achieving those goals. If you’re having trouble developing gardening goals for 2018, here are a few I would urge you to consider, tailoring them to your own needs and current abilities:

Learn to identify all the plants in your yard.

If you know the names of your plants, you will be much better situated to take advantage of the many websites and other resources for learning to care for them and learning how to diagnose and solve their problems. Knowing the names of the plants in your yard is the first and most difficult step to knowing how to care for them. Please email me photos at  john@urbanearthmemphis.com if you need any help!

One of the most common plants in Memphis landscape is azaleas, of which there many different types, and the most common problem with them is azalea lace bug, usually appearing as brown spots underneath the leaves and white spots on top of the leaves.

Develop and work a good irrigation strategy for your landscape.

If you can afford it, a professionally installed irrigation system is a good investment for many homeowners. If you want to go this route, and don’t know of anyone who installs them, we’re happy to refer you to one of the irrigation companies we’ve seen do good work.

Alternatively, email me or visit us at Urban Earth to learn how to water without an irrigation system. To give you an idea, I only water 6-8 times per year because of the plants I chose for my yard, the location I chose for them, how I planted them, how I fertilize them, and because I have a good sense of exactly when and how to water them. With practice, you too can develop this expertise.

Develop and implement a fertilization plan for your landscape.

Fertilization, the providing of essential nutrients for plants, can be a very complicated topic but most people can get 70% of the benefits by doing 5-10% of the work. The old adage, “The perfect is the enemy of the good,” is as true for fertilizing as it is for anything.

Thus, my recommendation for the kind of person who simply doesn’t have a lot of time to invest in fertilizing is to do two things:

1. Follow Greg Touliatos’s advice and apply a controlled release 12-6-6 fertilizer to all of your turf and plants, following the application rates on the bag, once in late winter or early spring and again in early fall;

2. Apply soil sulfur to all plants except turf grass and boxwoods every fall at the average rate of a quarter cup per shrub with one or two four pound bags of soil sulfur being perfectly adequate for most yards.

Then, if and when plant problems arise, communicate them to an expert and make slight plant specific adjustments as necessary.

Are there fertilization regimens likely to produce more extraordinary results? Of course! Being or having “the best” is never easy. But, most of our customers are looking for “pretty good” and are not willing to invest the time and money to become true experts at fertilization. If you evolve into one of those people who wants more than our simple suggestion for a fertilization program can provide, we can assist you with that, when the time comes.

Add a water feature to your landscape.

I truly believe that no landscape is complete without a water feature. The presence of water in the landscape is calming to humans and can be attractive to beautiful birds and beneficial insects and pollinators. It can be as simple as a bird bath or as sophisticated as a large ornamental koi pond. And, it can even be somewhere in between, like a fountain or an above ground water garden. Regardless of where you decide you want to be in the continuum, we can help you get there. (I, personally, don’t count swimming pools as a garden feature but some do.)

One of many fountains Urban Earth Garden Center carries by Campania and Fiore Stone.

Develop and implement a plan to control weeds in your landscape.

Digging out weeds is not fun. The best way to approach weeds is to prevent them. You can do this in a few ways:

A. Plant to reduce bare ground in your garden, to keep sunlight from hitting soil, without overplanting;

B. Use a mulch that keeps weed seed dropped by birds, wind, or gravity from touching soil (never use weed fabric);

C. Use a synthetic or organic pre-emergent product to chemically prevent seeds in your soil from germinating without killing living plants.

With care, you can also use a post-emergent herbicide to kill weeds after the seed has germinated. Post-emergent herbicides can be selective or non-selective. Selective herbicides kill some types of plants but not others. For example, there are formulations that kill most broad leaved weeds but not grass and formulations that kill grasses only but not broad leafed plants.

Similarly, herbicides can be contact or systemic in nature. Contact herbicides are those that kill just by touching the plant and usually produce results within a few hours. The advantage of this is that results are quick. The disadvantage is that the results tend to be incomplete, e.g. killing the canopy of a plant but leaving the root system healthy enough to grow a new canopy. In contrast, systemic herbicides are first absorbed into the plant, before killing. They take longer to work, results taking days or even weeks, but are more thorough.

Traditionally, the only organic option for herbicides was diluted vinegar, a contact herbicide. But, in recent years, suppliers are putting in a greater effort at supplying organic herbicides. In my observation, it is not yet clear how effective they are.

Sketch out a long term plan for your landscape.

Few people have the money to completely re-landscape their yard all at once. And, you work hard for the money you choose to devote to landscape. The best way to spend it wisely is to develop a plan first.

I always tell people the way to begin a landscape plan is browsing plants and deciding what you like first; your yard does not care what plants you like. So, what I mean by that is you have to first understand your yard. What direction does your home face? What existing plant material do you have? How many hours of sunlight do the various parts of your yard get? You need to understand the yard you have before you can get the yard you want.

So, your yard is an important partner in choosing plants. And, so are we. Email me to set up an appointment for a free in-store design consultation, if you plan to purchase plants from us and do the work yourself, or ask for a site visit by one of our landscape company’s designers if you would like for us to the work. The fee for the site visit is $100 (as of the publication of this article) but you get a credit of $100 towards the labor portion of any proposal for work that you accept.

For inspiration, you might read Kim Halyak’s informative series of interviews of local garden designers.

Look at ways you can use fewer man-made chemicals in your landscape

If you have a weed or a plant disease problem, we usually have a synthetic or naturally derived chemical solution. But, using chemicals is not without risk to you, to your plants, and the environment. Most of these problems are “cultural,” meaning they relate to how you maintain your plants, whether their water and nutritional needs are being met, and whether the right plant is in the right spot. After you learn to identify all of the plants in your yard, learn to identify their needs so they are less vulnerable to plant disease. Humans have better immune systems when they are physically fit and psychologically healthy and plants are not that different.

Add more native plants to your landscape.

This year, you are likely to hear a lot about the native plant movement in Memphis. The theme for the Cooper-Young Garden Walk this year is native plants, with Doug Tallamy, the author of Bringing Nature Home, as their featured speaker. And, the Memphis Horticultural Society will be hosting a native plant conference later in the year. As part of our Saturday speaker series, we will be hosting Mike Larivee, an expert on the native plant movement, on Saturday, March 24, 2018 at 1pm, part of our Saturday speaker series. Generally, the idea behind the native plant movement is that native plants are less likely to disrupt our native habitats. Yet, they aren’t the plants most people are putting in their yards, instead choosing cultivated plants from other regions of the world, disrupting our eco-system.

Visit public gardens once each season.

Make it a goal to visit the Dixon and the Memphis Botanic Garden once each year. They’re both fun places to go, you’ll learn a lot just walking around and reading the signage, and they could use your support.

Plant at least one thing that will provide interest during each month of the year.

Take a calendar and make sure you have something in your yard each month that looks especially vibrant. For the months you don’t seem to have anything, talk to the staff at Urban Earth about getting

The combination of a holly and a coral bark maple brightens up what would otherwise be a bleak January landscape.

something that will plug those holes. For example, it’s easy to make your yard look extraordinary in May or June, but what about the other 10 months of the year? You should have something that really shines, providing interest in your garden, for each month.

Get an ISA Certified Arborist to inspect your trees.

If you have trees in your yard, especially big shade trees, I think it’s a good idea to have a tree expert you trust examine them once every three years. Although there are people with a lot of expertise in trees who are not certified by the International Society of Arboriculture, ISA Certification is one way of proving expertise. ISA certified arborists have had a number of years of experience, have passed a rigorous exam, and are subject to a strict code of ethics.

 

Of course, it is also true that some of the most knowledgeable tree experts I have met have never bothered with ISA Certification. So, if you know of someone with a reputation for excellence, don’t rule them out just because they aren’t ISA certified!

 

Regardless of who does it, getting your trees inspected every three years might save you a lot of money in the long run, heading off problems before they become more expensive. Keep a record of who did the inspection, when they did the inspection, and ask for a written report, in the event a problem comes up down the road, for example, a tree collapsing on a guest’s car.

Expand your planting beds and reduce your turf grass.

Memphians love their turf grass, and, if you have children or grandchildren playing a lot of sports in the yard, it’s really necessary. But it takes a lot of chemicals and a lot of water to maintain a perfectly uniform turf. So, turf grass is not the most environmentally friendly garden element. Because of this, one of the biggest trends in gardening designs is reducing the amount of turf grass you have in your yard, expanding your planting beds.

Compost

The simplest way to compost is to come in and buy one of our compost tumblers. Insert your shredded leaves, rinsed out egg shells, vegetable waste (so long as it doesn’t have oils in it), and grass clippings (so long as you have not used any herbicides in your turf grass). Then, when the compost is ready, generally when it has turned to a uniform consistency and is black or nearly black, top-dress your planting beds with it or use it in your back-fill with new plantings.

Our compost tumbler offers a simple solution.

 

Attend 3 or More Free Seminars/Classes/Talks at Urban Earth

We are working really hard to expand our Saturday speaker series and there is something sure to interest everyone. Consider setting a goal for yourself to attend at least 3 of our scheduled talks. You’ll meet other people who are also interested in gardening and likely learn a great deal from one of our knowledgeable speakers.

Attend the Cooper-Young Garden Walk

It is not often that total strangers let you into their yard to nose around, but each year, many of the best gardeners in the city who call the Cooper-Young neighborhood their home open their yards up to let you do just that. And, very often, the owners are there to answer questions! The third annual Cooper-Young Garden Walk will be held May 19 and 20, 2018. Be sure to check it out!

 

John Jennings, Author and Manager

The author, John Jennings has been manager of Urban Earth Garden Center since June 1, 2016.  Before that he was a self-employed landscaper for 8 years, having previously worked as both a real estate lawyer and a drug counselor in previous lives.  He grew up in the South Carolina low country, learning to garden in the fertile soil of Copes Island, a small barrier island near Beaufort, in Jasper County. John is a graduate of the McCallie School, the University of Richmond, and the University of Memphis Law School. If you read this blog entry, please email the author at john@urbanearthmemphis.com and let him know what you think. 

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Great Gift Ideas from Urban Earth’s Manager!

Urban Earth is, first and foremost, a plant nursery, but our garden center also includes many unique items related to the gardening lifestyle.

 

Urban Earth provides free gift wrapping, to the extent the item is one that can be wrapped. We also have great gift bags!

 

 

There are more great gifts than could possibly be described in a single blog post, but here are just a few good choices:

 

Electronic Candles

When I first heard about the electronic candles, I pictured the ones I had seen at Wal Mart 30 years ago, terribly tacky things I could not imagine wanting to buy, much less sell to others. But, when I finally saw these in action, they took my breath away! The ivory candles are made of real wax and, when turned on, the flame is indistinguishable from the real thing. Then, if that wasn’t enough, they can be programmed to turn on at the same time every day and stay on for several hours before turning themselves off. And, not only that, they can be operated with a remote (sold separately for $9.99 but one remote can operate as many candles as you own). There are many options of sizes and finishes from which to choose, including:

Boxed pair of 2 inches x 4 inches candles in an ivory wax finish for $44.99

A 3 flame pillar 6 inches x 10 inches in an ivory wax finish for $139.99

A 3.5 inches x 5 inches in either ivory wax or or burlap wrapped wax for $40.00

Our electronic candles come in a variety of sizes and finishes and are easily wrapped! One remote ($9.99) will operate as many of them as you own. Some are even for outdoor use!

Boxed pair of 1 inch x 10 inches in an ivory wax finish, perfect for candle holders (which we also sell) on the Christmas dinner table $57.50

A 3 flame pillar 6 inches x 6 inches in ivory wax for $109.99

A 3.5 inch x 8 inch in silver finish for $57.50

A 3.5 inch x 9 inch in a waxed ivory finish for $60.00

We also have one really cool Aquaflame Outdoor Fountain Candle, 8.5 inch, with an included remote, for only $45.00 (a discontinued item)!

Traditional Wax Candles

But, if you don’t think the beneficiary of your Christmas largesse would not appreciate the convenience and modernity of electronic candles, we still carry the real thing, waxed works of art that are amazing! Among others, we have:

Volcanica handcrafted candles in two sizes for $17.00 and $42.00

Botanicals short scented candles in a variety of horticultural scents for $14.50

Garden Books

We have a variety of great gardening books but the one that no Memphis area home-owner or gardener should be without is The Mid-south Garden Guide for $23.99. Why buy a garden book that may or may not contain information accurate to Memphis? Written by locals for locals, this 500+ page treasure of information was originally written by Dr. Carolyn M. Kittle and published by the Memphis Garden Club in 1954. The seventh edition, published in 2007, has been poured over by local experts to bring it up-to-date and has beautiful photographs and illustrations. This is the book I have turned to repeatedly in my career in horticulture and it as an especially perfect gift for a first time Memphis home owner.

Garden Gloves

Our garden gloves are decidedly high end, not the kind you want to lose, and they make perfect gifts, the kind you might have your whole life. Here are a few that come in a variety of sizes:

 

Bionic Tough Pro Heavy Duty Gloves for Men $39.99

Bionic Relief Grip Women’s Gloves $39.99

Bionic Rose Gloves $49.99

Pink and Brown Garden Girl Gloves $18.99

Brown Garden Girl Premium Gloves with Touch Screen Feature $24.99

 

Garden Tools & Accessories

We carry all sorts of great tools, brands like Hisco, Classic, Fiskars, Corona, and Felco. A few great items that look great when the gardener in your family comes downstairs to see what Santa brought her are:

Fiskars Extendable Pruning Saw (extends from 3 feet to 8 feet) for $34.99

Hisco Garden Turning Fork (the same brand our landscape crews use) for $44.99

Brown Raised Metal Bed Kit (12 inches x 47 inches x 26 inches) for $99.99

Set of 10 Copper Plant Labels $11.99

Plankets for covering plants before frosts in two sizes, 10 feet diameter round for $17.95 and 10 feet x 20 feet rectangular, with stakes, for $24.99

Wind Chimes

We carry wind chimes from several different manufacturers, both ceramic and metal. Our largest are Corinthian Bells and Music of the Spheres. They are both top quality but the chimes by Music of the Spheres tend to be a little more expensive, the preferred brand of the musically inclined, because they are more precisely tuned. Here are just a few of what we have in stock:

Corinthian Bells Wind Chimes

Corinthian Bells in the 36 inch size for $94.99

Music of the Spheres Soprano $89.99

Music of the Spheres Mezzo $129.99

Music of the Spheres Alto $209.99

Valencia Fountain and Music of the Spheres Wind Chimes

Music of the Spheres Bass $599.99

 

Outdoor Garden Art

As a plant nursery, we naturally think your landscape and garden should be primarily filled with, well, plants. Yet, no landscape or garden is complete without non-plant elements, things like statuary, sculpture, fountains, outdoor furniture,and ponds. Here are just a few:

Cinderella Metal Garden Arch $499.99

Rain Chains $39.99

Lava Indoor/Outdoor Pillows $40.00

Vertical Wall Planters $39.99

Campania or Fiore Fountains, including the Valencia Fountain for $687.00 and the Gold Granite Table Top Fountain for $399.99

Bird baths of all types including a ceramic bird bath in a variety of colors for $139.99

Sitting Cat Statue $193.00

Small garden statuary

Cast Iron Rabbit $69.00

Trout Statue $62.00

Cut Steel Oil Drum Top Wall Hanging $99.00

Edison String Lights Multi-Colored or White $45.00

Children’s Items

(Not infrequently purchased by adults for adults)

When Greg and Carla Touliatos envisioned a garden center, they wanted children involved too, to pull them into the natural world in the hopes they will become gardeners as adults, rather than merely occupying them while their parents browse. In keeping with that vision, the store is stocked with a plethora of unusual items that appeal to kids of all ages, including miniature gardening and fairy gardening supplies, terrarium supplies, miniature garden tools, garden gloves for kids, and paleontology themed items:

 

 

Robotic T-Rex Kit $24.95

Dig-It-Up Dinosaur Eggs $24.95

Dig-It-Up T-Rex Kit $24.95

Dig-It-Up Triceratops Kit $24.95

Mindware Brainbox Science & Nature $14.99

Hanging Flying Baby Pteranodon for indoor ceilings or outdoor limbs or structures $369.99

Miniature Garden Sets of Various Types $44.99

Create Your Own Terrarium Kit $29.99

Home Decor and Hosting

We have many items for bringing the garden lifestyle indoors, just a few of which are:

Bee Box Lantern (perfect for holding electronic or traditional wax candles) $59.99

Brightly painted 2.1 Gallon Watering Can, excellently functioning but beautiful too as decor for $29.99

Botanicals Scented Room Mist Spray $12.50

Set of 20 Anne Griffin Correspondence Cards $36.99

Set of 6 Pet Refrigerator Magnets $22.99

Weems & Plath Storm Glass Set $179.99

2018 Master Gardener Calendar $15.00

Cherub Lamp $415.00

Doorknob and Faucet Handle Reusable Wine Corks of various types $31.00

Pig Head Wall Hanging $79.99

Large Distressed Zinc Vase, a perfect farm chic item for holding plant cuttings $16.95

Desktop Conant Thermometer $11.99

Soaps & Body Creams

Farm Soap $11.99

Toke Hemp & Hippy Sandalwood Body Cream $18.99

Little & Bonny Liquid Pump Hand Soap $21.95

Rad Soap Company Soaps of various types $7.99

Ouch Salve by Rad Soap Company $7.99

 

Pet Items

When you visit Urban Earth, always feel free to bring your well-behaved and leashed dog. We’ll have treats a fresh water bowl ready! And, of course, we wouldn’t want to leave your pets out in our gift items. So, here are just a few:

Purrfect Puppy Bug Relief Cream $12.00

Dirty Dog Bug Repellant Soap $10.99

Purrfect Puppy Hot Spot Soap $12.00

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FALL GARDEN MAINTENANCE TASKS

No plant is more synonymous with the fall season than mums! We have them in white, red, pink, orange, yellow, and we might even get other colors in later this season.

 

Plants become aware that fall is approaching well before humans. For those of us who work with plants, we think of fall as beginning well before coffee shops start offering pumpkin spice lattes. Best to get started on your fall gardening tasks immediately!

 

 

Get leaves up as soon as they start falling

The process of leaves falling from trees is called abscission and it begins before the leaf actually falls from the tree, happening in three steps: remobilization, protective layer formation, and detachment. During remobilization, the tree extracts nutrients from chlorophyll, degrading it, and causing the leaf to change color by leaving carotenoids (orange, red, and yellow plant pigments) in place but destroying the chlorophyll. Nitrogen in particular is often bound up in chlorophyll and the tree needs that nitrogen to get through the winter.

 

This year we are carrying two leaf rakes, a professional grade, by Hisco, just like the rakes our landscape crews use, and a vintage style but durable rake with a stained wood handle that is sure to become a family heirloom.

 

There are two common misconceptions among gardeners: 1. Plants don’t need nitrogen in winter and any nitrogen they get will cause them to put on new growth and become vulnerable to winter cold; 2. Leaves allowed to decompose in winter will become a good source of nitrogen in the spring.

 

Bright Lights Swiss Chard, a nice addition to any fall container arrangement or seasonal bed planting configuration

First, though high nitrogen inorganic fertilizer with no time release component in late summer or early fall may cause a burst of new growth in some circumstances, the concern is usually overblown. Winters in Memphis tend to be mild and approach gradually, and plants need nitrogen in varying amounts year round. Second, as we learned when looking at the process of abscission, much of the nitrogen is sucked out of leaves by the plant before leaf drop.

 

Accordingly, allowing leaves to sit under trees and around shrubs all winter, year after year, as they do in forests, is not good for the plants. To see what happens in the “natural state,” walk through The Old Forest in Overton Park and notice how a large percentage of plants in an actual forest are in various states of deterioration and decay. Forests survive, often, more by their prolific seed drop rather than because conditions are ideal for individual plants. New plants are ever replacing old plants, giving the illusion of consistency.

 

So, start getting up leaves as soon as they start falling! Blow or rake leaves out of beds regularly, maybe onto your turf grass, and then run over them with a lawn mower, before the leaf volume gets so great that it will choke your mower. Then bag the shredded leaves and place them curbside for municipal pickup (shredding them first will reduce the number of bags needed tremendously and speed their decomposition in a landfill) or put them in your compost bin.  Remember, though leaves alone are poor sources of nitrogen, composted leaf mulch, mixed with other compost, can be good spring fertilizer or a component for a custom soil mix.

A small moss planter and a package of napkins from Urban Earth, with a few small spoon gourds grown from our Baker Creek Seedsline makes for a perfect host or hostess gift!

 

Allowing leaves to accumulate excessively on top of the lawn will create the perfect breeding ground for fungal problems. Raise the mower blades to 3-4 inches in late summer and let the mower suck up some leaves and leave a small amount of shredded leaves in the turf.

 

Plant fall annuals for color

It would be unwise to plant an entire yard in annuals, given the expense. But, every yard should have designated spots for seasonal color.  Some of the best annuals for planting in the fall include pansies, violas, mums, snapdragons, swiss chard, and kale. Urban Earth Garden Center has a full selection in stock right now.  To see more of what’s in stock, check out our slideshows on our facebook page, Urban Earth by Greg Touliatos.

 

To really learn about fall color, join us for a free class on the subject (“Fall Annuals and Fall Bulbs for Your Garden”) by David Levy, Greg Touliatos, and John Jennings on Saturday, October 14, 2017 at 1pm.

 

Pro-tip: white blooms show up better outdoors at night than any other color, perfect for evening entertaining.

Put down a granular pre-emergent

Put down a granular pre-emergent in both the spring and fall to stop weed seed from germinating. We like Hi-Yield Turf & Ornamental Weed & Grass Stopper Containing Dimension. One bag will cover up to 3,500 square feet of planting beds or up to 5,000 square feet of turf. Though it is not a cure-all, it will form a chemical barrier that will prevent a large percentage of weed seed from germinating and becoming fall annual weeds.  Preen is the most widely known pre-emergent among consumers but we like this product better.

 

Put down seed for cool season plants

Apply fescue seed, winter rye seed, or “fall cover crop” mixes to your turf in September and October for best results.

 

Fescue is often described as a shade grass but a more accurate description is a cool season grass that does well under the canopies of deciduous trees. Zoysia and Bermuda are warm season grasses, meaning that they engage in photosynthesis in the spring and summer and go dormant when temperatures drop. In contrast, cool season grasses, like fescue, engage in photosynthesis, coming alive, after leaf drop. The fact that fescue is not a “shade grass” is important because it would not do well under the canopies of evergreen trees. (Note: Creeping red fescue is a genuine shade grass but is not recommended because it has zero tread tolerance; even a squirrel walking across it will kill it, the reason we don’t carry the “deep shade” fescue mixes some other garden centers carry.)

 

This year we are carrying a variety of cool season seed offerings, including Five Star Fescue in various sized bags, a fall cover crop mix of annual clover and rye, fall and winter forage crops for hunting plots, and duranna white clover, just to name a few.

Also, remember that fescue is only barely tolerant of our heat.  Hence, it thins in late summer and needs to be over-seeded at least once per year, every fall, and preferably again in late winter, around the time crocuses start coming up or shortly thereafter, to create a lush look.  How to install fescue is beyond the scope of this article but come see us and we will be happy to explain it!

 

Fall cover crops are plants that do well in cooler temperatures and are special because of their nitrogen fixing qualities. They are generally, with some exceptions, annuals, meaning they won’t come back again after their season completes.

 

By nitrogen fixing qualities, we mean that they have a symbiotic relationship with certain bacteria in the soil that allows the plants to pull nitrogen directly from the ambient air for their benefit and the benefit of plants around them, releasing the nutrients into the soil when they die at the end of their season. These plants include legumes  like red clover (annual) or durana white clover (perennial), both of which we carry as stand-alone products and in mixes.  For a better understanding of how to use fall cover crops to improve the look and health of your turf, please visit our store.

 

Plant bulbs

Fall is the time to plant bulbs like daffodils, crocus, and tulips for winter to spring beauty. This year, we will be receiving our bulb order from Devroomen, one of the best suppliers of bulbs in the world, in the first or second week of October. Although you can install bulbs well into January or even, in some cases, February, if you wait too long after they arrive at our store to buy them, you will have fewer choices. They go quickly!

 

This author likes to install bulbs the Friday, Saturday, or Sunday after Thanksgiving as a family activity. Installing bulbs too early can mean that they start coming up too early, making the new growth vulnerable to the destructive effects of a hard freeze. After Thanksgiving, the chances of a false spring are much less.

Notice how the yellow daffodils against the green fescue and rye mix break up an otherwise bleak winter landscape along this driveway in midtown Memphis, Tennessee.

Generally, in Memphis, daffodils and crocuses are perennials, meaning that they will come back every year, while tulips are annuals.  Though daffodils and crocuses are technically perennials here, they have an ephemeral nature in that they don’t seem to come back every year.  In my experience, in any given year, 80% of my daffodils will pop up and bloom, but it won’t be the same 80% each year. Crocuses are similar in that regard.

 

Crocuses, my favorite bulbs, are often overlooked as options by gardeners.  But, they do well under the canopies of trees, whereas daffodils really need more sunlight to come back up again in future years. Further, crocuses come up earlier than most everything else, often seen pushing up through ice and snow as a beautiful harbinger of spring.  Though the metaphor may be nearly cliche, gardeners are like wine drinkers.  New wine drinkers like sweet and fruity wines, like a pinot grigiot, sauvignon blanc, or even an after dinner sweet port.  But, as they mature in their appreciation of wine, they move onto the cabernets and the merlots.

Though garden trowels or soil knives can work fine for planting bulbs, many gardeners find specialty bulb planters like this Dewitt Bulb Planter
that we carry, made in Holland, with a lifetime warranty, very helpful.

Bulbs are like that in that new gardeners tend to gravitate towards the tulips, mere annuals in our climate, but bright and showy, while crocuses are generally something appreciated by more experienced gardeners for their subtlety.

 

One thing to keep in mind about bulbs is that the photosynthates absorbed by the plants coming up from the bulbs this year determine their success in the following year. So, if you plant them in too little sunlight, they will likely come up fine the first year but will perform poorly, if at all, the following year. For the same reason, it is important not to cut your plants back after the blooms are spent until the plants themselves begin to deteriorate to give the leaves as much time as possible to create and store photosynthates (a nutrient that can only be made when light is being absorbed) to ensure a good outcome for the next year.

 

The trick to adding color to a winter landscape is not to try too hard. Learn to appreciate the branch structure and texture of naked trees, Natchez Crepe Myrtles in this case, a tree known for its “cinamon” (exfoliating bark), but add little splashes of color to complement and balance it. You cannot create summer in January in Memphis!

Remember, all bulbs require a certain number of hours of chill time in order to be successful. All of our bulbs come pre-chilled. It is for this reason, perhaps, that after mild winters in Memphis, fewer daffodils and crocuses come up but come back in subsequent cooler years.

 

Between the time that you buy bulbs and the time you plant them, keep them in a paper sack in a cool dark place, ideally at a temperature below 70 degrees Fahrenheit.

 

Plant trees and shrubs

Nothing beats a Ginkgo tree for consistent fall leaf color.

Although good gardeners can plant trees and woody shrubs any time of the year, there is no question that the best time to do so in Memphis is the fall. Temperatures are moderating, slowing soil evaporation, and the rainy season is beginning, giving new plants, which always begin with shallow root systems, a much better chance of survival and allowing them to develop a wide and deep root system before Memphis’s drought period in July and August. Further, many plants go into dormancy, a self-protective mode where the focus of their growth shifts from their canopies above ground to their root systems below ground, meaning that they develop root systems faster in the fall than they would any other time of the year.

 

But beware, a well-managed nursery should not be too soft with its plants in winter.  All plant nurseries wrap their greenhouses in plastic in winter, but good nursery managers are also careful to properly harden their plants off. Tender new canopy growth in plants is a point of vulnerability when a freeze hits. So, if you buy plants from a garden center that has kept its greenhouses too warm, causing them to put on lots of pretty new growth, you may have a dead plant a few weeks after you put it in the ground. Hardening off plants and keeping them hardened off until winter has ended is an art, a process

Camellia sasanqua ‘Yuletide’ blooms around Thanksgiving in Memphis.

Greg Touliatos personally supervises and monitors at Urban Earth Garden Center, entrusting it to no one else.

 

For ideas on trees to plant in your yard, see the article, “Best Trees for Memphis,” or, better yet, come talk to us in the store and we can look at the options together.  For best results, email the street address and photos of the area where you want to plant ahead of time to john@urbanearthmemphis.com.  If you there is a plant you want but think we might not have in stock, email us to request it.  Be sure to put “Plant Request” in the subject line and we will confirm receipt of your email and let you know if and when we are able to find it, by email.

 

Transplant trees and woody shrubs

For the same reason fall is the best time to install woody plants in Memphis, it is really the only time to transplant woody plants in Memphis. The very act of transplanting causes significant damage to a plant’s root system, reducing its ability to take up moisture and nutrients from the soil. Transplanting is too complicated in scope to address this article, but please visit us for advice on transplanting.

 

In particular, this author recommends that you use Fertilome Root Stimulator. Fertilome Root Stimulator contains auxins, plant hormones that help stimulate new root development, and other nutrients needed for plants with damaged root systems. Be careful using other fertilizers when transplanting, because recently transplanted specimen are particularly vulnerable to burn from excessive fertilization.

 

Fertilize

Apply time release 12-6-6 fertilizer in spring and fall, like the Hi-Yield Growers Special that we carry, or an organic alternative like Happy Frog by Fox Farm.  Apply soil sulfur to all of your woody plants, except boxwoods, especially azaleas, hydrangeas, and hollies. (Note: If you are regularly using Happy Frog Fertilizer for Acid Loving Plants there is no need to apply soil sulfur, in my view.) Apply lime to boxwoods every other year or so to raise the ph, a measure of soil alkalinity or acidity, since boxwoods are about the only plant commonly used in ornamental beds in Memphis that likes a more alkaline soil, preferring a slightly higher ph than other woody plants. Let us guide you in the specifics of applying these products when you visit.

Urban Earth Garden Center is proud to carry Fox Farm Products, including their Happy Frog line of organic fertilizers.

Prune

Many gardeners are shy about pruning or trimming plants too late in the year. Pruning and trimming can stimulate new growth, and as already explained above, new growth makes the entire plant more vulnerable to cold damage. But, if you’re in the garden already, in Memphis, it won’t hurt and may very likely help to do a little careful pruning. At least prune any deadwood out of your woody plants, selectively thin plants with dense growth by removing branches, and prune a third of the canopies of your roses back in the fall (You will prune another third of the canopy of your roses back right after Christmas, before the winter winds get especially strong). Do not do any wholesale shearing with a power trimmer to shape as this will definitely stimulate new growth!

 

Urban Earth has an excellent selection of the best tools, including the famous Felco F2.

When you prune, always use high quality bypass pruners and be sure to disinfect your pruners between plants with a 10% solution of bleach to prevent disease spread.  We carry the industry gold standard for bypass pruners, Felco, but we also carry less expensive but still excellent models by Corona and Tierra Pro. Anvil pruners, which we do not sell at Urban Earth, tend to mash the branches rather than cleanly cutting through them, whereas bypass pruners make healthy cuts with fewer entrance points for plant disease. (I have yet to come across a single good reason for a gardener to own a pair of anvil pruners.) Make sure your pruners are sharp too for the cleanest cuts. If you’re not sure about the pruners you currently own, come see us for guidance and advice in learning to maintain them.

 

Decorate

Fall is a great time to go full on Martha Stewart!  It’s easy to cut flowers in the spring and summer and stick them in water. But, fall both requires and allows for more creativity. For more information, google “creating fall centerpieces for tables” and a wealth of information will come up. One of our employees, Martha “Martha Stewart” Garriott, is particularly talented and will be happy to help you pick out the perfect vessel and find seasonally appropriate cuttings and elements to complete the centerpiece.

This fall centerpiece was a joint effort by the author and Martha Garriott, a sales associate at Urban Earth and a Master Gardener. It is simply a combination of cuttings from plants on the premises, and the earliest leaf droppings from trees like Sarah’s Favorite Crepe Myrtle, a Wildfire Black Gum, a Regal Prince Oak, an Autumn Glory Ginkgo, and a Kousa Dogwood.  Notice, also, the small spoon gourds, grown by the author’s son, Henry.

 

Learn

Fall is a great time to read, study, and sharpen your knowledge as a gardener. And, there is no better

If a Memphis home owner owns only one garden book, it should be The Midsouth Garden Guide.

place than Urban Earth Garden Center to help you along this journey. We have a clever selection of books, knowledgeable employees who give good advice, a regular schedule of free classes in our education annex, outside speakers, and hands on assistance and guidance. Follow us on Facebook to find our seminar schedule or look for it in our blog section, updated a few times each year; read our blog; subscribe to and read our emailed newsletter by emailing info@urbanearthmemphis.com and requesting that you be added or messaging us on our fb page; and email me with questions and photos (john@urbanearthmemphis.com).

 

John Jennings, Author and Manager

The author, John Jennings has been manager of Urban Earth Garden Center since June 1, 2016.  Before that he was a self-employed landscaper for 8 years, having previously worked as both a real estate lawyer and a drug counselor in previous lives.  He grew up in the South Carolina low country, learning to garden in the fertile soil of Copes Island, a small barrier island near Beaufort, in Jasper County, the famed land of Pat Conroy.  He was taught the basics of planting by his step-father, Wade, his mother, Melissa, and his father, Karl.  Though both of his parents grew up in Memphis, and he spent vacations visiting his maternal grandparents, Richard and Diana Allen in Memphis, he did not become a resident of the city until he finished college in 1994.  He left South Carolina at the age of 14 to attend The McCallie School for Boys, in ChattanoogaTennessee, graduating in 1990, before getting a degree in English from the University of Richmond, in Virgina,in 1994, finally graduating from the University of Memphis Law School in 1997.  He has a 10 year old son named Henry.  If you read this blog entry, please email the author at john@urbanearthmemphis.com and let him know what you think.  

 

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BEST TREES FOR MEMPHIS

THE BEST TREES FOR MEMPHIS

(AN ODE TO COLUMNAR DECIDUOUS TREES)

 

Though a good horticulturalist can be successful planting any time of the year, the best time to plant trees and other woody plants in the Memphis area is in the fall.  So, it’s time to start contemplating what you’re going to plant this fall! (This is the first of a series of blog posts I’ll be doing on fall gardening activities over the next few months.)

Columnar European Hornbeam in a bed designed by Jesse Howley and installed by the author at the home of Tom and Janet Wyatt on Angelus Street in midtown Memphis, Tennessee.

 

Trees are categorized in many ways. Aesthetically, trees are most often categorized by size, shape, and whether they are deciduous (meaning they lose their leaves in winter) or evergreen (meaning they keep leaves year round). The size categories are usually small, medium, or large, defined best here, https://www.arborday.org/trees/righttreeandplace/size.cfm, while canopy shape is defined best here: https://extension.tennessee.edu/publications/Documents/SP531.pdf.  The tree sizes and shape I advocate most for in urban environments, which usually have smaller yards, are small to medium sized trees with columnar shaped (also called fastigiated) canopies.

This row of arborvitae was planted at a private residence by Greg Touliatos & Associates, Inc. as part of a comprehensive landscape design and installation project.

 

Columnar trees have a strong vertical form and are often six feet or less in width.  The most well-known columnar tree forms are probably arborvitae and Italian cypress, both commonly associated with Mediterranean landscapes but widely used in Memphis.  For example, Presbyterian Day School has a row of small arborvitae, about 8 feet tall, on the south end of one of its playing fields bordering Central Avenue.  Then, there is a row of 3 very tall Italian cypresses, over 30 feet, in midtown on Evergreen, a couple of blocks north of India Palace Restaurant.  These two examples are both evergreen.

These 3 Italian Cypresses have been in midtown for years and have done well, though likely more were planted in the beginning.

 

But, lesser known, and I think under-utilized until the last few years in Memphis are columnar deciduous trees.  We often think only of deciduous trees as large shade trees, except perhaps for Japanese and other maples or the widely over-planted crepe myrtles.  Customers rarely specifically request a columnar deciduous tree at our nursery.  In fact, just as new wine drinkers often prefer sweet white wines before maturing into cabernets and merlots, inexperienced gardeners gravitate towards things that are covered in blooms part of the year or evergreen, preferably both, fearing the bareness of deciduous plants in winter and not appreciating the texture of mere leaves without flowers.

 

One big advantage of deciduous columnar trees over evergreens like arborvitae and Italian cypress is that they tend to have fewer problems.  The evergreens prefer the subtly different Mediterranean climate rather than ours, are sensitive to both under-watering and over-watering, and too often get bag worms and other pests, particularly in early summer.  In contrast, well-planted deciduous columnars are relatively maintenance and pest free, needing only the occasional pruning of dead branches.  Without leaves in winter, a sudden ice storm is less likely to damage them too.  Most importantly, as a gardener matures in her appreciation of the life cycle of plants, she comes to appreciate the changing shape and color of leaves over the course of spring, summer, and fall, and the architecture of bare branches in winter.

Group of Slender Silhouette Sweetgum and Emerald Arborvitae trees right after delivery to Urban Earth in Winter.

He who marvels at the beauty of the world in summer will find equal cause for wonder and admiration in winter…. In winter the stars seem to have rekindled their fires, the moon achieves a fuller triumph, and the heavens wear a look of a more exalted simplicity. ~John Burroughs

 

So, increasingly, the landscape industry and home owners are realizing that medium and small deciduous trees in general, including columnar cultivars, are better alternatives than columnar evergreens.  Moreover, they are realizing that smaller trees are better for the close confines of modern urban environments than the old standard unimproved shade trees like oaks, elms, gingkoes, and tulip poplars that were widely planted in Memphis during the twentieth century.  Indeed, if you have ever had to contend with a large old specimen of a deciduous shade tree too close to your home, you know how challenging they can be.  The roots can rip apart foundations and sewer pipes.  Leaf removal under the canopies of large old deciduous trees in the fall can be an enormous undertaking.  And, worst of all, falling limbs or entire falling trees, weighing tens of thousands of pounds, can destroy property and cause human injury or death.  To make matters worse, tree removal of a large deciduous tree that has been diagnosed as too unsafe to keep in place, can cost $15,000 or more.

Fallen tree in midtown after a recent wind storm in 2017.

 

Consider, for example, a mature oak tree, inexplicably planted 15 feet from the rear of an east-facing home.  The tree has been diagnosed with an incurable fungal problem, its roots have largely rotted, and its leaves are only green because of stored photosynthates.  It remains erect only because it weighs 70,000 pounds and is like a nail whose point has been tapped into the ground.  Eventually, because this is Memphis, a straight-line wind will come along from the west, push the tree over, and flatten the home, destroying it and everything in it.  A wise homeowner, faced with this information may feel they have no choice but to pay to remove it at a cost of as much as 10% or more of the home’s value, enough money to buy a new car or increase the size of the home.  Likely, this tree was not “planted” but rather was a volunteer, allowed, maybe even encouraged by a new homeowner decades before, a homeowner who likely felt very proud that he had not had to pay for it, regarding others who had designed intentional landscapes as spendthrifts.

 

But then, there are those who over-react to this problem, removing all trees from their property, leaving only foundation shrubbery and turf grass, with no shade, like the homes in new mid to low grade subdivisions.  This approach has its problems too.  There is no shade without trees so more energy is needed to cool the home in the summer and the benefit of deciduous trees that mitigate carbon emissions is entirely lost.  Further, for whatever reason, humans find the close proximity of trees comforting.  They have an inherent attraction for us and we do not find a landscape wholly devoid of them attractive or as appealing as a yard with one or more well-placed trees on it.

 

Hence, the arbor market is now producing more manageable small and medium-sized columnar cultivars of old standbys.  They tuck nicely into courtyards, make for beautiful allees, and form inspiring focal points in corner beds.  For greater impact they can even be clustered in trios! Here are some of my favorites from our growers:

 

Allés of European Hornbeams designed by Dale Skaggs at The Dixon Gallery and Garden in Memphis, Tennessee.

 

 

Columnar European Hornbeam (Carpinus betulus fastigiata) has been around for a while, the Frans Fontaine cultivar of columnar European hornbeam being my favorite of the various cultivars (a cultivar is a variety of tree discovered by a grower deliberately looking for variations within a population of trees and then propagating, usually by cuttings, that tree because of its atypical but desired qualities.)  The ‘Frans Fontaine’ cultivar tends to get about 25 feet tall and 6 feet wide, tucking into the corner of a foundation bed nicely or making a nice focal point in a larger bed.  They also look great in a formal row.  I first became aware of this tree when the Dixon Garden, under the direction of Dale Skaggs, planted an allee (a walkway or avenue lined on both sides with trees) of them a few years ago.  With alternate oblong-ovate leaves with rounded base and acute tip, pale green in spring, dark green in summer, and pale yellow in the fall, the canopy forms a dense oval of overlapping leaves that flutter in breezes and come across like an impressionist painting from even short distances.

 

Row of small columnar European hornbeams, likely ‘Frans Fontaine,’ planted at The Dixon Gallery and Gardens in Memphis, Tennessee by landscape architect, Dale Skaggs.

Though ‘Frans Fontaine’ gets larger in other climates, in our climate it tends to be more restrained, seldom getting much larger than 25 feet tall and 6 feet wide.  Unusually, the tree is tolerant of extreme pruning, some horticulturalists pruning the limbs all the way back to the trunk once each year to keep it even narrower than it already is.  It is not infrequently used as a screen or hedge, similar to how english hornbeams are used at one of Martha Stewart’s homes, as described here:

http://www.themarthablog.com/2013/09/sculpting-an-english-hornbeam-hedge.html

 

Goldspire Ginkgo (Ginkgo biloba ‘Blagon’) is a new cultivar of an old favorite.  Ginkgos have long been regarded as the oldest species in continuous existence on the planet, in either kingdom, with some fossils of ginkgo leaves as much as 270 million years old.  They have unique fan shaped leaves leafing out pale green in the spring, darkening, and then turning a striking fluorescent yellow in the fall just before leaf drop.  With a large genome of over 10 billion DNA nucleobase letters and over 41,000 predicted genes (the human genome has around 3 billion) the plant has excellent disease resistance and general all-around toughness, having lived through more existential threats than any other plant alive.  Though the species can get over 100 feet tall, the Goldspire cultivar (‘Blagon’) tends to be much smaller, 15-20 feet tall and 5-6 feet wide.

 

Because the cultivar was only introduced in 2010, coming from France, the tree is hard to find.  I have sold a handful to customers in Memphis but I don’t know where they are planted.  So, just like any new cultivar, it is a risk, since there is not much history to go on.  But, given the success of other ginkgo varieties and cultivars, and the benefits of an unusually small cultivar, perfectly sized for tight urban confines, it seems worth the risk.  If it proves itself over the next couple of years, it may replace ‘Frans Fontaine’ as my favorite columnar tree.  If you want this tree, be sure to email us right away to get on the waiting list for it, as we are only expecting to be able to get a few this fall.

 

Persian Spire Ironwood (Parrotia persica ‘JL Columnar’) is an even newer cultivar than Goldspire Ginkgo!  Discovered by John Lewis of JLPN Nursery in Salem, Oregon in 2013, it is an unusually slow growing ironwood, upright and columnar in shape, topping out at under 15 feet.  But, the most unique thing about this tree is its foliage, especially in fall, when it takes on purple, orange, and red hues, sometimes all on the same leaf, and holding onto the tree for quite awhile after the color changes, before fall abscission (leaf drop).  Read more about this great new cultivar on the the Pacific Northwest International Society of Arboriculture site: http://pnwisa.org/2017/06/persian-spire-upright-ironwood-parrotia-persica-jl-columnar-p-a-f/

Persian Spire Ironwood trees have an unusual colored edge when they first leaf out but become solid green as the summer progresses, finally evolving into beautiful multi-hued fall color.

As of this writing, Urban Earth has sold a total of 3 of this plant and has one in stock, all in 15 gallon containers, about 6 feet tall.  2 have been planted at an apartment complex across from Ardent Studios on Madison and one has been planted at a private residence.  We hope to get a few more this fall but don’t expect this cultivar to be easy to get for a few years.  There is no question that anyone who planted one of these trees this year would have one of the rarest trees planted in Memphis, for at least a few years.

Slender Silhouette Sweetgum (Liquidambar styraciflua ‘Slender Silhouette’) is the tallest of all of the trees referenced in this article.  Growing as tall as 60 feet and as wide as four feet, it more commonly tops out at 50 feet with a width of 3 feet.  It is also the quickest growing.  Though it is used in landscapes in Memphis in a variety of ways, one of the best ways I have seen it used is as a corner piece to soften the edge of a two story home in Germantown.  Read more about this tree here: http://www.hortmag.com/plants/plants-we-love/slender-silhouette-sweetgum

Lindsey’s Skyward Bald Cypress (Taxodium distichum ‘Lindsey’s Skyward’) has been around long enough, at least 16 years, to prove itself to be a great success in the Memphis area.  Though it is a conifer, it is, in fact, deciduous, but tolerating wet feet better than most.  A dwarf, it gets up to 20 feet tall and 6 feet wide.  A truly lovely tree, though this author does not have much experience with it, it is one of Greg Touliatos’s favorites.

Lindsey’s Skyward Bald Cypress Trees available for sale at Urban Earth Garden Center in Memphis, Tennessee August 9, 2017.

 

Mushashino Zelkova (Zelkova seratta ‘Musashino’) was named the “2016 Urban Tree of the Year” by the Society of Municipal Arborists.  Meant primarily to be a tough street tree, it can also be used, like all columnar trees, as focal points in the landscape, as allees, and as screens.  Though too new of a tree to know for sure, it is said that it “has the genetic potential to reach 45 feet in height and 15 feet in width at maturity,” with orange/red leaves in fall, with leaves in an oval shape and serrated at the edges, reminiscent of a hornbeam’s leaves.  Read more about this new tree of great promise here: https://www.amerinursery.com/plants/sma-announces-its-2016-urban-tree-of-the-year-zelkova-serrata-musashino/

 

Regal Prince Oak (Quercus x warei ‘Long’ REGAL PRINCE) is perhaps the fattest of the trees described in this article, though not the tallest, getting up to around 45 feet and 20 feet wide near maturity.  The older leaves turn a beautiful red in the fall after the tree has matured for a few years in the landscape.  Look here to find a good concise history of this tree, well proven in the Memphis area: https://www.uaex.edu/yard-garden/resource-library/plant-week/quercus-xwarei-oak-regal-prince-01-22-2016.aspx

Arnold Tulip Poplar (Liriodendron tulipefera ‘Arnold’) is an excellent cultivar of our state tree.  It is a compact solution for anyone who wants to show their loyalty to Tennessee but has too small of a yard for a full size tulip poplar.  Most commonly, you can expect this tree to mature at around 25 feet tall and 8-10 feet wide in the Memphis area, though it might get taller in other parts of the world.  Its blooms are yellow-green, tulip shaped, beginning in late spring through the summer.

 

The author, John Jennings has been manager of Urban Earth Garden Center since June 1, 2016.  Before that he was a self-employed landscaper for 8 years, having previously worked as both a real estate lawyer and a drug counselor in previous lives.  He grew up in the South Carolina low country, learning to garden in the fertile soil of Copes Island, a small barrier island near Beaufort, in Jasper County, the famed land of Pat Conroy.  He was taught the basics of planting by his step-father, Wade, his mother, Melissa, and his father, Karl.  Though both of his parents grew up in Memphis, and he spent vacations visiting his maternal grandparents, Richard and Diana Allen in Memphis, he did not become a resident of the city until he finished college in 1994.  He left South Carolina at the age of 14 to attend The McCallie School for Boys, in Chattanooga, Tennessee, graduating in 1990, before getting a degree in English from the University of Richmond, in Virgina,in 1994, finally graduating from the University of Memphis Law School in 1997.  He has a 10 year old son named Henry.